Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Hortense Mancini and "Traditional" Marriage

Hortense Mancini, duchess of Mazarin (born 6 June 1646)

The fourth of the five daughters of the Italian aristocrat (and notable necromancer and astrologist) Michele Lorenzo Mancini and his wife, Girolama Mazarini, Hortense Mancini would be celebrateded throughout Europe for her beauty, famed for her scandalous behavior, and pitied by what one contemporary called her "unhappy shipwreck" of a marriage. 

Hortense Mancini as Aphrodite,
portrait by Jacob Ferdinand Voet
Hortense Mancini's mother was the sister of Giulio Mazarini, the Italian cardinal, diplomat, and papal emissary who rose to power in France and became chief minister to Louis XIV.

As the favorite niece of Cardinal Mazarin, Hortense Mancini was destined for a politically advantageous alliance, to be arranged by her uncle. For the unfortunate Hortense, that meant marriage to a French nobleman, Armand-Charles de la Porte de la Meilleraye.

The marriage, which took place in 1661, was a spectacular failure. Armand-Charles proved to be abusive, unhinged, and profligate; Hortense at first tolerated her husband’s bizarre and controlling behavior but eventually abandoned him (and her four children) in 1668. 

Then she began an outrageous career of her own, involving herself in a series of rather swashbuckling escapades that made her the talk of Europe--there may have been no Twitter or tabloid TV in the seventeenth century, but, as Elizabeth Goldsmith demonstrates, Mancini's "itinerary" became "popular fodder for conversations, letter correspondences, and news gazettes" devoted to the scandal.

Mancini's adventures began when, while escaping from her marriage, she traveled in men’s clothing although, as she notes in her Memoirs, she and her maid were "recognized as women almost everywhere." (Interestingly, in yesterday's post we noted a similar "shocking" element in Queen Christina's departure from Sweden after her abdication in 1654--she wore men's clothing.) 

And after fleeing her husband, Mancini did not limit herself to cross-dressing. She embarked on a series of scandalous affairs with both men and women. She also managed to garner the sympathy--and financial support--of Louis XIV, who gave her a large pension that enabled her to live independently. She proceeded to do just that, setting up home in Haute-Savoie, where she became the mistress of the duke of Savoy until his death. 

At that point, having lost her protector, Hortense found that her spurned husband was able to take control of all of her finances, not only the wealth she had inherited from her uncle, Cardinal Mazarin, but also the pension she had been awarded by Louis XIV.

Penniless but not without resources, she traveled to England and arrived in London in 1675, "in the depth of winter,” dressed "as a cavalier wearing boots and spurs and an overcoat spotted with mud." Once in England, Mancini was not shy about sharing the details of her continental adventures--her account of her life up to this point, Mémoires D. M. L. D. M. (Mémoires de Madame la Duchesse de Mazarin), was published in Cologne in 1675; these memoirs were translated into English and published in England, first in 1676 and then again in 1690. 

Hortense Mancini, 1671,
by Godfrey Kneller
And her adventures had not come to an end. Mancini soon became the English king's mistress; she had arrived in London in January 1675--by August, Charles II had given her an apartment in his residence at Whitehall, one that had once been occupied by a previous mistress, Barbara Villiers. He also provided her with a handsome income.

Although their sexual relationship ended in 1677, Charles continued his friendship with and support of Hortense, and after the king's death in 1685, his brother, James II, continued  to support Mancini--after all, his wife, Mary of Modena, was Mancini's cousin. But after the abdication of James II in 1688, Hortense Mancini's circumstances began to deteriorate. 

It was at this point that Mancini's long-abandoned husband sued for divorce. Just as her earlier sexual adventures had proved food for scandal, the divorce case proved equally irresistible. A juicy account of the legal wrangling between husband and wife in 1689 appeared in print almost immediately after their divorce case was decided in the duke’s favor; the legal arguments in the case brought by Mancini’s husband to regain possession of his wife were published in 1690 by the duke’s lawyer. Another account was published in 1698, this one including the arguments of the duchess’s lawyer. An English translation of this account of the case was published in London in 1699. 

Having lost her divorce case and her royal patrons, Mancini moved to Kensington Square and then, in 1693, she moved to Chelsea, acquiring a home on Paradise Row. There, her neighbor was the English feminist and philosopher Mary Astell, who used the "unhappy shipwreck" of Mancini's marriage as the trigger for Some Reflections upon Marriage, published in 1700. Astell begins her devastating critique of "traditional" marriage with an extended analysis of the case of "Madam Mazarin."  Mancini died in Chelsea on July 2, 1699.

For Hortense Mancini's Memoirs, check out Sarah Nelson's wonderful new English translation. (The edition also includes the memoirs of Mancini's sister, Marie, whose marriage to Lorenzo Colonna was equally unhappy.)

For a biography of Hortense Mancini, I like Toivo David Rosvall, The Mazarin Legacy: The Life of Hortense Mancini, Duchess Mazarin--it's out of print, but you can find used copies. On Mancini and the contemporary “conversations, letter correspondences, and news gazettes” devoted to the scandal of her continental adventures, see Elizabeth C. Goldsmith, The Kings’ Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin.